Our young forestry contractor finds himself undertaking a hedging job in Cumbria where the challenge is team management – and escaping the farm without an electric shock.

APPARENTLY there are a total of 48 geographical counties in England and I’m pleased to announce I’ve just reached the halfway mark, having now scattered sawdust or placed my spade in the ground of 24 of them.

My latest exploit was a visit to Brampton in Cumbria where, accompanied by a motley crew of seven other souls, I was tasked with planting 2.5 km of new hedge.

The squad, devoid of professionals, resembled something akin to the war film The Dirty Dozen, in which a random group of people are thrown together in a common cause. In some ways it was a little like war, where individuals are sent into a situation untrained, ill equipped and act as cannon fodder. Fortunately, in this instance, there was little risk to the individuals concerned and my overriding philosophy was strength in numbers, hoping the three experienced planters would quickly share their knowledge with the newbies. What could possibly go wrong?


In hindsight perhaps I should have spent more time researching the terrain.

However, on the day I went to inspect the job the weather was atrocious, with gales and driving rain. Having checked out the first strip I retired to the dairy staff quarters to drink coffee, dry out and discuss cows (that’s what dairy men like to do). I should have buttoned up my coat and walked the course. Having visited the site I decided to delay the job until March as the days would be longer. Experience has already shown me that to get the most from an inexperienced workforce on an away gig dreaming about getting to the pub ASAP, you must make them work for as long as possible. In that way you keep them out of the pub a little longer.

As the first spade bounced off the hard Cumbrian sandstone I knew this was a job to turn boys to men. Spades were put to one side, pinch bars were deployed and heads went down. It’s easy to be a captain when you’re winning, but real leadership comes to the fore when the going gets tough and people are starting to doubt you and question your decisions.

Forestry Journal:

I recalled that I was beginning to develop a habit of captaining failing teams – captain of a cricket team that came last in the league, captain of the pool team which won two games from 14 and chairman of the Young Farmers when we came last in the rally. I had pedigree. Experience had taught me that the trick is to try to keep people smiling which wasn’t easy among a largely unfit workforce who’d been throwing pinch bars at sandstone all day with the prospect of a further 2.4 km to go.

Food was at the heart of my plan and the day began with a visit to the local sandwich shop for tremendous bacon and sausage baps. It ended with my wife’s lasagne and cottage pie followed by vast quantities of lager. Fortunately for me, The Nag’s Head in Brampton was reasonably priced and after a few pints the workforce soon forgot the toil of the day. By repeating this format on a daily basis they’d already planted 400 metres before they began to recover from the previous evening, after which they were motivated by the prospect of getting back to the pub that evening. It worked a treat and, despite callused hands, shiny pinch bars and a rather large bar tab, the job was completed in a week. Cumbria complete... for now.

As the week progressed it became apparent who the grafters were and who wouldn’t be invited back. Some listen and learn and work hard while others try hard to avoid doing anything. By day three I’d identified one individual as the least productive, loudest complainer and the highest consumer of beer. I should have grasped the nettle and sent him home but I didn’t, and in the final hour before we left, he managed to redeem himself. Being a dairy farm, the grazing areas were demarcated with electric fences and much of the planting took place between them. Earthing yourself out with a steel pinch bar is no laughing matter and while we did have the odd laugh, it added to the challenge of the job.

Following the completion of the job there were two of us left to clear up the remaining materials and, having stacked everything in the trailer, we set off for home. Our exit required a tight reverse across a slippery cowshit-covered astroturfed track. Unfortunately the trailer slid sideways over the muck and settled up tight against the electric fence. To make matters worse, the electric wire had managed to hook itself on the mesh sides of the trailer. I learned this to my cost as I exited the vehicle and received several high-voltage thumps from the door handle.

With my hair standing on end and concern over an induced heart attack, I decided at that moment to stand still. I now looked towards my malingering associate in the passenger seat who was grinning and taking a Snapchat. However, he then put his phone down and wandered off to the farm buildings, reappearing with a telehandler and a set of straps. Grafting with a pinch bar wasn’t his forte, but years of working with machinery had taught him how to get out of a pickle. Within the hour we were back on the road to Northumberland, hair still on end and with intermittent heart palpitations. I suppose everyone has their day.

It’s only recently that I’ve really appreciated what a lot of forestry managers, foresters and secretaries do all day. For several years I jetted off abroad to pursue a solo shearing career. However, by organising a workforce and planting I’ve realised this is actually the easy part. As soon as you exceed 500 metres of hedging a day in a variety of locations then the organisation, paperwork and payroll details become overwhelming. I can no longer do it before and after work, having to use Sundays to run around the countryside pricing jobs and chatting to farmers. I’ve decided the only way to get through this backlog is to become an office worker and allocate a morning a week set aside for paperwork. This has not gone unnoticed with the workforce who have identified an uncanny link with the weather forecast that day as they are left pinching holes in sodden ground.

I’ve always believed in the old adage that you get what you pay for and that although it can be tempting to buy cheaper, in the long run it just isn’t worth it. Over the last several months of firewood processing and hand cutting I’m beginning to draw conclusions on the most cost-effective ways to cut wood. Saws and chains aside I’m just going to talk about bars, which to me fall into four categories – new, alright, sloppy and knackered. Over the years there isn’t a manufacturer’s bar which I haven’t used, from new to knackered, and while I have my favourites their durability is often matched to their price tag.

Forestry Journal:

If it was just for my sole use and I was only felling and converting nice, clean trees with a sharp chain I would select the Stihl Rollomatic light bar as they are lightweight and very durable, but come in at over £100 for a 20-inch bar. The problem I have is that a large part of my processing business involves timber that no one else wants, as it’s often covered in sand, grit or even stones. Because of this there is often a tendency to push on a bit longer than usual with a dull chain to get the most out of it before changing it. By doing this the bar gets a hammering as staff push on longer than they should. This act produces sawdust that looks like it’s come off a band saw and blue smoke where the bar oil is vaporising from the heat of the rails. When you equip an operator with a new, expensive solid bar and witness this abuse first hand it does make you question your choice of bar manufacturer.

Which leads me onto the Rocwood 20” laminated bar from eBay, priced at £17.20 including VAT. They don’t oil all that well and the rails chip away quite quickly but at that price six of them will last you longer that one reputable bar. It’s also less stressful watching them being abused.